Guest Column - May 2020
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inPERSPECTIVE / PLAYGROUNDS

Playgrounds Build Community Through Cooperation

By David Dionne


Few dispute child development experts' opinion on the necessity of play. It is vital to a child's self-image, growth, and personal and social development. A public or private investment in a playground should get the best product at the most cost-effective price. As a result, communities across the nation invest millions of dollars in playgrounds every year, from design and installation to maintenance. Despite this care and investment, many playgrounds fall short of children's needs and end up under-used, misused or ignored.

How can we recapture playgrounds' appeal and invest in equipment that meets children's needs, and ultimately those of the greater community?

Understand Play's Impact

Play, to a child, is the equivalent of work to an adult. When children arrive on the playground, their work begins. Countless studies show play helps children of all ages develop social and language skills, fosters mental and physical improvement, and enhances emotional health and well-being. They learn to communicate and cooperate, negotiate, manage risk, and adapt and adjust to changing situations. They learn to accept others with different skills and abilities.

Children who play become well-rounded people, who will ultimately build well-balanced communities. When a town invests in an effective playground, it invests in the future.

Reclaiming Playgrounds From the Risk-Averse

Led by the fear of risk and the threat of litigation, we have segregated age groups and equipment that tends to isolate children instead of encouraging them to play socially. The result: The key benefits of play are eliminated or suppressed.

Two important considerations about risk come to mind:

>> A Lawson Foundation report says children need risk for healthy growth. This is how they figure out the world: the laws of physics, how to gain confidence, and how to develop resilience and executive functioning skills.

>> While experimenting with risk, children also learn risk management skills. Research by Mariana Brussoni, a professor at the University of British Columbia and BC Children's Hospital, shows that risky play opportunities reduce the risk of injury because kids learn from their own and others' experience.

Therefore, while they do need limited adult supervision for safety reasons, children need free play. On an individual level, a child can measure their progress, develop muscles, improve their balance and learn to manage risk. On a group level, free play provides children with the opportunity to act as their own guide and referee, learning to negotiate, to be honest, to collaborate with others and to play by the rules.

Child Development & Inclusiveness

Overall, playgrounds foster cooperation not only among peers, but also among different age and ability groups. Rather than being segregated by ages and skills, playgrounds can be designed for real play where older children help younger children, abled children help those with disabilities (different abilities), and everyone learns to set boundaries.

To that end, playgrounds can be designed not only for fun, but also to help in the development of physical, social and emotional skills.

A well-designed playground offers several benefits for the children and families in the community by:

>> Stimulating a child's imagination and fostering cooperation, social skills, acceptance and communication.

>> Allowing children to experience and manage risk as part of the design.

>> Allowing children of all ages and abilities to intermingle and play on the same structures.

>> Stimulating children to build confidence, and physical, emotional and social skills.

>> Fostering a team environment in which everyone is welcome

>> Encouraging play, fun and community among all individuals—children, parents, families and friends.

Playground Solutions

The essential components of any playground will spark every child's imagination. A bridge could lead them to a castle across a moat over a lava field, or to safety away from a spewing volcano. The frame of a slide could be a castle tower, the mast of a pirate ship or a treehouse on a deserted island.

Negotiating these imaginary variations leads to problem-solving skills, which helps children's brains to develop, while putting their motor skills and spatial skills to use likewise develops bodies. They learn to cooperate as they play together, creating rules and roles to follow.

An ADA-compliant playground is fun for all and includes a variety of play components—climbing, sliding, spinning, swinging and role playing—as well as accessibility via ramps and appropriate surfaces. Playgrounds like these cultivate inclusiveness and offer opportunities for children to play freely together, inventing games inspired by their collective imaginations, creativity and inventiveness.

There are lots of great examples of ADA-compliant playgrounds that can spark the imagination and provide new ideas for building community. An ADA-compliant treehouse playground, for example, features a series of houses, each with unique entryways. The "houses" are safe, but their unique quirky nature adds to the excitement as children gather, explore and play. Another ADA-compliant playground features a special wheelchair swing that allows children to swing together with friends in wheelchairs. In both of these instances, children quickly learn a playground built with everyone in mind means everyone can play and no one is left out of the fun.

We need to invest in playgrounds like we invest in schools. Playgrounds are vital for the healthy development of our future adults, and imaginative, cooperative adults know how to solve the community's problems. RM



ABOUT THE AUTHOR
David Dionne is national account executive with Beanstalk Builders, an award-winning adventure playground contractor that builds custom, budget-friendly play structures. For more information, visit www.beanstalkjourneys.com.